An Interview with Richard Saucedo


Richard Saucedo is an internationally renowned composer, arranger, adjudicator, keynote speaker, guest conductor, and clinician. He has written numerous acclaimed pieces of music for marching band, concert band, choir, and orchestra, and he served as a music educator in Carmel, Indiana for decades. Under his direction, Carmel bands received state, regional, and national honors.

J.W. Pepper Senior Educational Consultant Scott McCormick interviewed Richard Saucedo and discussed Richard’s background and career in detail. Highlights include his composition strategies, his approach to designing competitive shows for marching band, and his experiences as a teacher and band parent.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Getting to Know Composer and Arranger Richard Saucedo

J.W. Pepper: Could you tell our audience about your background and how you came to be in the space that you’re in today?

Richard Saucedo: I was very lucky because my parents insisted that I start on a musical instrument. My dad decided it needed to be piano, and that’s kind of where everything started.

Of course, like a lot of kids, I didn’t want to practice, but I started falling in love with playing and then started to fall in love with music. I was really lucky because through elementary school, middle school, and high school, I had wonderful teachers and directors. They helped build my skills and confidence as a musician, and they made me want to be a teacher.

So, that’s how I came to be a band director. I continue to be very lucky because I get to work with some of the best people in our profession and write for some of the best groups in the country. I’m working with marching bands, doing some work for Hal Leonard as a composer, and I’m involved in the concert band world and in the drum corps realm. 

I continue to meet a lot of great teachers and mentors. It may sound silly to talk about mentors now that I’m in my sixties, but I think that we still need mentors at this age. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to find them my entire life.

JWP: Who was influential in your music journey as you started to discover composing?

RS: Back when I started composing, I was listening to music by Jay Bocook, Mike Sweeney, and—on the marching band side of things—I was listening to Wayne Downey’s arrangements. I’m now fortunate to work with Wayne at the Blue Devils.

My band director at Anderson High School wrote all our marching band music, which I thought was amazing. I asked him to teach me, and he’s a big reason that I’m writing today. I’m always going to be grateful to him.

JWP: When you were in college, was composition your major, or were you a music ed major?

RS: I have never taken a composition lesson in my life. The only classes I’ve taken are music education classes—and I didn’t always pay attention well in those! Still, I’m in love with music education. I think it’s the greatest thing for kids. Every day, I see more proof of that.

As far as composition, I never expected that people would actually buy my music! I never planned on that. When Hal Leonard offered me the opportunity to write and people actually paid for my work, I thought, “This is pretty cool!” So, I continued doing it.

I’m never going to be what I call a “real” composer. I’m always going to be one of those wannabes, but I’m happy being a wannabe. I feel like I serve a certain purpose out there for directors—at least, I hope I do—and I’m going to continue to do that the best I can.

JWP: I don’t know that I would call you a wannabe! Anyway, you played in band through high school and continued in college. Did you participate in drum and bugle corps as a performer? 

RS: I didn’t. I’d always been into drum and bugle corps, and I had the opportunity to march with the Cavaliers right out of high school, but that was when I was getting ready to go to Indiana University.

I was with the Cavaliers for a couple of weeks, I had learned the show, we were starting to perform, and things were going great—but then, I found out that IU wasn’t going to let me out of band camp. That meant I couldn’t do DCI finals. So, I had to leave the Cavaliers, which was heartbreaking to me.

JWP: Tell us about some of your most well-known compositions for marching band. Frameworks comes to mind. 

RS: Working for the Cavaliers was one of the best times of my life. This may sound bold, but in the early 2000s, DCI was ready for a different direction. So, we decided to go in the direction of performing original music. It wasn’t that no one had ever done original music before, but we did it consistently for years. Our goal was to come out with new music that people would hum or sing when leaving the stadium.

It was a great challenge, and I learned so much from doing that—from writing shows like Frameworks and Four Corners. We started with a blank slate, discussed with our visual team, and then I was able to set up my computer and just go. The Cavaliers were willing to try mixed meters and other complex musical elements that I always wanted to bring to the marching field.

JWP: You write a lot for the concert space as well. Windsprints is one of your pieces that many people may know. What are some of your other favorite compositions? 

RS: Snow Caps is another one that is played a lot by high school and college bands. I also composed the first movement of a symphony that was premiered at The Midwest Clinic a few years ago. 

I’m really into writing for younger bands, too, because people teaching younger kids need the right kind of literature for them. That’s why I write pieces like Into the Clouds, which is a very basic Grade 2.5 piece. I try to write pieces that have teaching concepts built into them. A lot of people are into writing the really hard stuff, and I like that too, but I really enjoy presenting teachers with music that they can use to solidify concepts with their students. 

JWP: Let’s go back to the teaching side of things. You taught for 31 years at Carmel High School before you retired. That’s an amazing tenure, and you did some wonderful things with the program. Tell us about your Carmel experience.

RS: I owe a lot to the great teachers at Carmel, people like choral director Ron Helens and orchestra director Tom Dick. I learned from these really good, established teachers.

JWP: What programs are you writing for now?

RS: I used to write for so many people around the country. Now, I’m writing for groups around my area and for friends. I write for Carmel, Fishers High School, Hamilton Southeastern High School, and other bands around this area. I also write for two high school bands in Texas that are just tremendous, but I’ve really started to limit the number of bands I write for because I don’t have the time to do it the way I used to.

JWP: That’s a perfect segue to talk about the drum and bugle corps you’re involved with. You wrote for the Cavaliers in the early 2000s and the Blue Devils last year. Let’s talk about those experiences and what you’re doing now.

RS: Being part of DCI has been an amazing part of my life, and it’s another area where I’ve learned so much from others: musicians, teachers, students, and staff members. I enjoyed working with the Cavaliers so much, and to think that I’m working with the Blue Devils in my sixties—I just have to pinch myself! It’s an amazing group, and one that constantly strives to get to the next level: not just for them, but for the activity. There are so many great teachers and designers there, and I’m so honored to be a part of it. I’m having a ball working with them, and I’m going to be coordinating more of their program this next year. I’m so excited—and nervous, too—because I don’t know how we’re going to top what we did last year, but we’re all excited to try! 

JWP: I just heard that you’re also going back to the Cavaliers?

RS: For some reason, I believe in my heart that I can handle two drum corps. I’m going to write the brass book for the Cavaliers, and I’ll be there occasionally to help and listen to what they’re doing. My full-time position is still going to be with the Blue Devils, but when the Cavaliers asked me, there was no way I could say no to them, because they jump-started my career. They’re a big part of the reason you and I are sitting here talking right now. So, I’m going to try to do my best work for them. 

JWP: Let’s talk about the pieces that you’re working on right now. Are you working on commissions?

RS: Yes, I’m getting ready to start commissions. I don’t have titles for you right now, but over the next six or seven months, there will be five or six new pieces. Two of them are going to be lyrical pieces, and the rest will be overture-type pieces or more rhythmic. Some are for honor bands, and some are for community bands celebrating high points in their careers. I’m really looking forward to working on these commissions.

JWP: We’ve talked a lot about your writing for marching band and concert works. Are you composing orchestral works as well? 

RS: I’m very excited about being able to write some orchestral pieces. Right now, I’m working on a piece for the Kennesaw Mountain string orchestra that they are going to perform at their festival this winter. My good friend who was the orchestra director when I was at Carmel gave me the opportunity to learn to write for orchestra, and so he’s another person that I have to thank. After this piece, I’ll have five or six orchestral pieces on the market, and I’m just thrilled that people are programming them for all-state orchestras. 

JWP: Is there a big difference between composing for the wind band and the orchestra?

RS:  Wind band, I know about 75% of what I’m doing. Orchestra, I know about 25% of what I’m doing. So, that’s the difference!

JWP: Your son is part of the Fishers High School band right now. Tell me about your role as a music parent. 

RS: It’s exciting, exhilarating, and tough. I watch him at rehearsals, and I have to remind myself: “You’re a dad, not a director. You don’t have to go out and correct them.” 

I’m really proud of my son; he’s doing great. He’s had wonderful teachers, including the staff at Fishers and his private teacher. The drum corps that I work with have been so welcoming to him, and instead of watching TV shows, I often find him watching drum corps or drumline videos!

JWP: Did you influence his decision to go into music?

RS: No, I really didn’t. I wanted him to give band a try and see how it went, and thanks to the great teachers he’s had in middle school and now in high school, he’s just kind of falling in love with it. It’s great to see his passion. He wants to become a percussion instructor. I’m thrilled. 

JWP: What impact has music had on your children’s lives? 

RS: It’s made them better people. My daughter is a tremendous elementary school teacher, and that’s because she worked with tremendous teachers. My son, Ethan, was lucky enough to be put in the snare line as a sophomore at Fishers High School because his teachers have constantly taught him about excellence. I’m so proud of both of my kids. 

JWP: We seem to be losing a lot of teachers today, either as a result of the pandemic or due to other factors. What wisdom can you give teachers of all ages? How can they thrive in the profession like you have?

RS: We can’t do it without these great teachers that are leaving. I get it: everybody gets tired or burnt out. A lot of my great friends stopped teaching during Covid because they refused to teach to a computer screen, and then after Covid, others were so disappointed to see the effects of the pandemic after building great programs around the country. I think it was hard for them to hang in there, and I understand.

What I would say to teachers is: “Just hang in there, because we need you more than ever.” We need great music teachers more than ever because what music does for kids is so important. Music education is just as important as academics because it creates the total student. We need to keep great teachers around our kids.

Designing a Competitive Marching Band Show

JWP: Can you speak to what goes into designing a marching band show today, including the differences between competitive and non-competitive shows? 

RS: When you’re putting together your show, the first thing you have to keep in mind is your audience. I used to think that the audience was just judges and that it was all about how competitive we could be, but now, my attitude has changed. If you can do great on Saturdays in front of judges, good for you. If you really want your program to thrive, though, kick butt on Friday night at your ball games. Have your principal saying, “Have you heard our band lately?” Have the football parents walking out of the stadium saying, “Man, that band is good.” You’re not going to get support just through doing well in competitions—you’re going to get support by thinking about the entire school environment. I always encourage people to design for Friday nights, because I think you can design a very competitive show that’s also exciting on Friday nights for your crowd. 

If you are going to do a competitive show, the first thing you have to do is decide what you’re in it for. Are you in it to help your kids grow? Is it important for you to win or place high? What are your goals? I always encourage directors to make engaging students their goal. When they finish the season, the kids should be excited to come back and start again next year. I still think that’s the most important thing: what are we doing for our kids? 

Let’s face it, though—we all like to be competitive. We all want to do well when we go to contests, and to be successful competitively, you have to put together a show that is going to display all kinds of different talents and abilities. On the marching field, we do that musically and we do it visually. You have to figure out how those two aspects are going to work together to present an impressive overall effect for judges and for audiences. It’s not easy to do, and that can be because we overthink it a lot. It’s best to focus on making sure that our kids are getting better. I think that’s always going to be the most important thing. 

To play well, you have to be willing to do basics. I’ll give some props to one of my colleagues, Chip Crotts, the Brass Caption Head at Blue Devils: he is amazing at getting kids to understand why basics are so important. We would do basics for an hour and a half at Blue Devils and those kids wouldn’t flinch, because they were so convinced that he knew what he was doing. All directors have to be great leaders, and we have to be able to sell the importance of teaching basics. It’s the same thing with visuals: most groups don’t spend enough time on fundamentals, because they’re too worried about getting the show out there. It doesn’t matter if you have 20 in your group or 250: if you really want to be competitive, your group—including the color guard—has to be fundamentally sound musically, visually, and movement-wise.

JWP: For those directors who are aspiring to get to that competitive level and can afford to have a design team, what does that look like?

RS: First of all, the whole idea of a design team came from some directors who were willing to leave their egos at the door and realize that they didn’t know everything about programming a show. So, they would hire great arrangers, designers, and color guard staff. A lot of this whole design process started in drum and bugle corps, but now it happens all around the country. 

Everywhere I go, I still see both sides: some programs have anywhere from three to 10 designers on their staff putting together the show. Some directors do it all on their own. Either way, you have to have a plan and know your goals. If you can get those kinds of people on your team, it will help your kids get better. If you can’t, then you have to spend time with those people and pay them to talk to you about how you can learn to do it. I find that the best designers around the country are the most willing to help young directors learn.

JWP: When does the process of designing a show begin? 

RS: It has to start early, because an eight- to ten-minute show involves a lot of design elements and a lot of music. Most of the programs that I work with start in January, right after the Midwest convention in Chicago, and sometimes we even have meetings at Midwest where people want to start talking about their design, because they know that all of us who are designers are busy. They’re also busy with their concert bands and jazz bands, but April or May always comes sooner than we realize. Whether you’re doing it yourself or you have a design team, I suggest starting early in the year so that you’re never in a panic. Give yourself time to think things through and come up with the best design for your kids. 

JWP: Let’s talk about selecting music specifically for shows. There are lots of options out there, including published marching band tunes, prepackaged complete shows, and hiring arrangers to create custom arrangements. What does each of those processes look like?

RS: I think most people who buy packaged shows do so because they feel that specific show is going to appeal to their kids. It’s also a less expensive way of getting music together, so I’m all for that. If you’re buying a packaged show, make sure that you really do your research. Listen to the music and look at the scores. Make sure it’s realistic for your group. You can always change some things later, but you have to make sure the show is going to appeal to your kids.

If you’re doing custom arrangements, make sure your designers know what you want. One of the reasons I love composing for the Cavaliers is because our program coordinator would just give me the concept and let me run with it, which can be fun—but if I don’t know a program that well, I want to know what the directors are thinking and what they want. Make good musical and visual notes for your designers. Make sure they know the level of your kids: don’t accept a Grade 5 written show if your band is a Grade 3. Let’s be realistic and give our students a chance to be successful by getting the right kind of music. The closer you can come to getting music that your kids are going to be excited about every day, the greater your chances of success.

If I write an arrangement and then have the director say, “We love the chart, but I took the first trumpet part down because it’s too high,” I want to say, “Why didn’t you tell me that they couldn’t play that high?” That’s what I mean about giving information to the designers. You have to make sure that you’re writing for the kids that are actually going to play. If it’s too hard, they struggle, and they’re disappointed—don’t expect those kids to be excited for next season. My focus is on how we can set students up for success, so they want to come back year after year.

JWP: Hiring a custom arranger is great for programs that can afford it, but many teachers may not know that packaged shows can also be a very good option. For example, your show Reflections of Sound, Form, and Light is really cool—and it’s available off the shelf.

RS: I wrote that show years ago, and I’ll still get an email or two from directors in the fall saying that their band is doing it and asking for suggestions or for me to talk to their students. I’m thrilled that it’s held up, and I hope that I’ll get a chance to write some more shows like that in the future. 

JWP: We may try to convince you to write one of those prepackaged shows for us…

RS: I’d love to do it.

JWP: Licensing and permissions for using music are hot topics right now. What do directors choosing custom arrangements need to know?

RS: Before you assign a piece of music to an arranger, you have to make sure you have permission to play that music. You can go through Tresóna Music, or you can go directly through the copyright holders. If it’s owned by Sony or one of the big companies, getting the appropriate permissions can be tough—but if you don’t and somehow you get caught, it will cost you even more. I really encourage everyone to make the first stop with the copyright holder and ask for permission. If they say no, you just can’t do it. I know horror stories of some bands and drum corps that didn’t do their due diligence and ended up losing thousands of dollars.

JWP: How critical is it in today’s world to have a good relationship with your students’ parents and booster organizations?

RS: I think it’s one of the most important relationships we have. Obviously, the relationship with our kids is number one and the relationship with our administrators is really important, but if you want to have a close-knit program where everyone’s working towards the same goals, you have to have the parents right there beside you. Directors get into problems with parents when the parents aren’t clear on the focus or goals of the program.

Make sure that parents understand the mission of your program and what you want to achieve. You don’t want to go to your parents in your very first meeting and say, “Next year, we want to try to go to the Macy’s parade, so we need thousands of dollars.” You want to build trust, build relationships, and then start to work towards the things you want to do. If you have parents behind you, there’s nothing you can’t do, because there are no parents in the school building tougher than band parents!

JWP: How important is a good relationship with your administration and colleagues—even with the athletic coaches?

RS: It’s critical. I used to go down and watch our girls’ basketball team practice and take notes. One of my good friends, an outstanding athlete, would ask me why I was watching, and I said, “I’m just trying to learn.” Every once in a while, she would come out and watch the band rehearse, and we realized that we’re working on the same things. Slowly but surely, we started to develop a relationship with the athletic folks. They started to realize that, in music and athletics, we use the same words and have the same kinds of thoughts about basics and fundamentals. 

We started talking more and more, and I became good friends with a lot of the coaches. I learned so much from them. Some of the most emotional moments at Carmel involved having a football coach come and talk to the band students before we left for a big competition. Those experiences were amazing! 

Your principal has to know you as someone other than the person who complains when they don’t have enough money or when something goes wrong. Every once in a while, go see your principal and say, “Thanks for supporting us.” Make sure that you’re supportive of your administrators because they go through way more than we will ever realize.

Composing for Wind Ensembles

JWP: Let’s talk about what you do in composing and arranging for the wind band, including the marching aspect. What are some of the mistakes you see arrangers are making, and how would you avoid those kinds of mistakes?

RS: This year, I wrote for the Liberty High School Band in Missouri. They’re a great little band, but they don’t have a lot of players, so I had to be careful about how I scored. I wrote with the sound of the band in mind—taking the instrumentation they had and then orchestrating for that instrumentation in a way that would give those kids a really good chance of sounding good. Occasionally, I push them just a little bit. 

If you go to a competitive event and you’re truly excellent at what you do, the difficulty level doesn’t matter. Very few bands are truly excellent. You can play something simple and, if you do it really well, you’re going to get credit for it and your kids and parents will feel great. 

Like I said earlier, it’s about setting them up for success, so I am very careful about where I place the notes. A lot of people think that, to be successful, you have to score the flutes really high so they’re heard. Well, what you hear when you score flutes really high is out-of-tune flutes! You have to be careful to put them just high enough that they’ll come through, but not so high that the kids don’t have a fair chance of playing in tune and sounding good. That’s when you’ll hear the flutes—when they’re clear and in tune. You have to use common sense and write music for the kids that are actually going to be playing it.

JWP: How do you approach the pacing of a show—that is, how do you maintain entertainment value without tiring out the performers? 

RS: Pacing is one of the most important things in putting together any program. You have to think about the audience and the effects. I try to get young directors to understand that you don’t have to play loudly all the time: there’s something to creating a subtle moment where the audience has to lean in and then smacking them in the face with a big moment. That’s pacing, and that’s effective writing. 

One of my good friends encourages people to put together a timeline. Where is the peak of your show going to be? If the peak is at the end, then where are all the mini-peaks that lead to it? What are you going to do in each segment to make each of your big moments happen? If you have that timeline established, it’s much easier to plug in music, visual ideas, or color guard ideas. That’s what I would encourage people to do. 

JWP: What do you wish directors would tell you when you write for them? 

RS: I’ve been lucky, because the folks I write for are really good about giving me information. Sometimes, I get so much information—someone will send me notes that say, “Flutes: two all-staters, three wannabe all-staters, and kids that aren’t sure which end of the horn to play in.” They’re that detailed! So, obviously, I write first flute parts and second flute parts differently. When I have that kind of information, it’s great, because I know who I can write for. If they say to me, “Keep the third clarinets below the break,” that’s what I do. For people out there that have their shows arranged, I’d say to make sure your arranger has that kind of information.

JWP: What does your creative process look like? Do you start with a piano sketch? 

RS: Yes, I’ll usually sketch on piano. It was hard for me at first because I wanted to do full measures at a time to finish more quickly, but I learned composing more quickly doesn’t mean composing better. 

So, I’ll tend to do a piano sketch. When I’m sure of something, I’ll go ahead and throw that part into the woodwinds, low brass, mellophones, trumpets, or wherever it’s going to be, because that’s a moment where I feel confident in what I want. In other places, I’ll finish the sketch, go back to look at the places that I was really confident about, and then work backwards to see how I’m going to orchestrate.

JWP: Do certain kinds of music resonate with you or influence your composing more than others?

RS: I’m a big musical theater person. I thought it was just amazing what Steven Schwartz did with Wicked recently. We did arrangements of it for Hal Leonard, and Steven didn’t necessarily understand the mellophone and the ranges. We wrote some notes that weren’t quite the melody because the mellophone needed to stay in the range, and he said, “Put that note back in there!” We’ve had some great experiences in learning from those folks, too.

In the jazz world, Pat Metheny has always been a huge influence on me. Not that I’m critical of what’s being written today, but I’m still waiting for music to hit me the way that Pat Metheny’s music hit me years ago. He was that unique and different, and listening to him changed the way that I wrote, especially harmonically.

I still love listening to anything written by Aaron Copland because he wrote so beautifully. So, I was motivated by a lot of different kinds of music that I continue to listen to and try to model myself after.

JWP: What advice would you give a young composer or arranger?

RS: Study scores! Studying scores is just as good as any composition lesson. I really believe that. Look at a great orchestrated score by John Adams, for example. As soon as I mention John Adams, people are going to think, Wait a minute, Richard—he’s a minimalist composer. If you think he’s a minimalist composer, go in and look at one of his scores! People say he just throws a bunch of rhythms around, but if you go and look at his scores, you will be blown away at how everything is connected. Everything has a reason. I don’t know how he does it, I think he’s from another planet!

By looking at those scores, I realize how much I still have to learn. He writes operas in a few days, amazing orchestra pieces in a few weeks, and I’m struggling to get a measure done in a week! So, study scores of the people that you particularly enjoy listening to and see how they do it. I think that’s the quickest way to learn how to do what we do.

Shop music by Richard Saucedo here.

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